On Mapping Fragility and Conflict Early Warning

The concept of fragility is gaining traction in the European Commission (EC). Member States and leading international development organizations are also backing the concept. Is the fragility label just another buzz word? Does the concept add value to the field of conflict early warning? How do fragile states compare to “weak states” and “failing states”? Indeed, what is fragility?

I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions. What is clear to me from participating in recent  EC meetings in Brussels is that the concept of fragility is rather fluid with no standard definition. This makes operationalizing the concept somewhat challenging. Nevertheless, the label does appeal to me for one important reason: the term fragility has its roots in ecology; understanding the later can shed light on the former vis-a-vis fragile states and societies. This explains my surprise when a quick review of the state fragility literature yielded not a single reference to the use of the concept in fields beyond our own.

Fragility conjures notions of complex processes (as opposed to discrete events) weaving dynamic, interconnected networks. Fragile ecosystems exhibit non-linear albeit interactive, emergent behavior. Turning to articles in peer-reviewed science journals would be where I’d start. Take this article on “Ecological Networks and Their Fragility,” published in Nature.

In this Review, we compare ecological networks to non-ecological networks, and consider their similarities, differences and underlying causes. Along with networks of interacting computers, genes or humans, ecological networks display well-defined, similar patterns of organization. On close inspection, ecological networks are unlike other networks. Their assembly follows different rules, and the processes of predation, competition and mutualism constrain them in unique ways. Other networks nonetheless help us understand why ecological ones are special in the constraints that apply to them and how they develop.

Why is the Political Science literature not taking a similar cross-disciplinary approach? Why aren’t we comparing state fragility with fragile ecosystems? These questions go to the heart of the reason why I find the use of fragility as a metaphor an important one for our field. The notion of fragility encourages us to move beyond the monitoring of single events towards underlying complex processes. The view from below is “more messy” unless we take a cross-disciplinary approach.

The following is from a paper I wrote (Networking Early Warning Systems) for ISA 2007. Please see the original paper for all references.

In the past, “discussions with regard to early warning systems have emanated from a concern with the early prediction and reporting of events instead of processes which could lead to social disasters.” Consider an hourglass or sand clock as an illustration of fragility-as-causality.

Grains of sand sifting through the narrowest point of the hourglass represent individual events or natural hazards.  Over time a sand pile starts to form, which represents the evolution of society or the connectedness of a social network. Occasionally, a grain of sand falls on the pile and an avalanche or disaster follows.

Why does the avalanche occur? One might ascribe the cause of the avalanche to one grain of sand, i.e., a single event. On the other hand, a systems approach to fragility analysis would associate the avalanche with the pile’s increasing slope and to the connectedness (or population density)  of the grains constituting the pile since these factors render the structure increasingly vulnerable to falling grains.

Left on its own, the sand pile’s stability, or the social network, becomes increasingly critical or vulnerable.  From this perspective, “all disasters are slow onset when realistically and locally related to conditions of susceptibility.” A hazard event might be rapid-onset, but the disaster, requiring much more than a hazard, is a long-term process, not a one-off event. We must therefore “reduce as much as we can the force of the underlying tectonic stresses in order to lower the risk of synchronous failure—that is, of catastrophic collapse that cascades across boundaries between technological, social and ecological systems.”

Pursuing research on the notion of fragility helps shift the discourse away from monitoring individual events (falling rains of sand) to characterizing the resilience of the state and society. This is why the concept is an important one to include in the policy discourse, even if it will take time for operational frameworks to mature.

One response to “On Mapping Fragility and Conflict Early Warning

  1. Pingback: On Building Resilient Societies to Mitigate the Impact of Disasters | iRevolution

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